An Interview with SF Opera’s Kip Cranna, Part 2

This is the second half of an interview with San Francisco Opera’s Musical Administrator, Kip Cranna. 

Post: How would you describe the current general director’s taste and interests?

Cranna: David is a fascinating guy He has probably commissioned more American opera than any other general director. He has over thirty titles to his credit. Of the current projects he’s looking at there are some very fairly out there concepts. It’s going to be a thrilling ride to see some of these come to fruition.

On the other hand, though, he has this populist bent. He understands the role of big stars and he’s not apologetic about that. There are artists that he really likes working with: Angela Georghiou is one; Natalie Dessay is another.

Post: I’m curious if you see an aesthetic developing in the kind of work that he gravitates toward.

Cranna: He’s very strong on good storytelling: that there’s strong dramatic content that leads somewhere, which has a kind of innate logic and inevitability, a drive and coherence. He doesn’t shy away from things that are adventurous or innovative as long as they tell the story well. I think that’s why he liked the Lepage version of The Rake’s Progress.

We have a lot irons in the fire. We’ve gone in on a co-commissioning with Dallas of Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick and we will probably workshop that here. We workshopped Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers, which has already been done in Houston.

We do so many more modern operas than we used to that one of my essential jobs is managing the commissioning process. Again, it’s David who drives that. He decides whom he wants to commission and what operas we are going to develop, but I am the caretaker of that process: negotiating agreements, seeing that the piece actually gets composed and onto the page.

Post: How many new productions and new operas are possible in a season?

Cranna: A show like Bonesetter’s Daughter is extremely challenging both musically and in terms of production. You can only manage one or two of those in a season because they require extraordinary effort on everyone’s part. They can be like the pig that the snake swallows—this big bulge that moves through the season dislodging everything else. Typically, that’s why a second or third slot is favored for new productions.

Post: I’ve noticed that most new productions have several co-producers.

Cranna: We often do co-productions; Chicago is one of our main partners. If they build the sets, then the opera is first staged in Chicago. When it comes here it’s new to us but we haven’t had to bear the costs and time constraints of the actual production. On your own it’s tough.

A big factor in co-productions is the technical capabilities of the houses. The new houses that have been completely modernized, like Covent Garden or Paris, often do productions that would be impracticable for us. When we redid our theater we had the constraints of the footprint of the building. We have modern equipment but not the actual space.

Changes in technology have had huge effects on productions: so much more is done with projection and special lighting effects. Audiences expect to be visually excited. I think it’s one of the reasons why opera is becoming more expensive. We are competing with TV and the movies. Video is becoming a major factor on stage.

Post: Does that make staging easier?

Cranna: There’s a creativity challenge. You don’t want it to look like you’re just showing movies. The video has to look as if it’s integrated into an overall live stage environment. The stage director is the key person making sure that the video doesn’t take on a life of its own that’s independent of the drama.

Post: I hear rumors of expanding into the off-season.

Cranna: David is very interested in finding another venue smaller than the opera house but bigger than most of the spaces available. San Francisco is kind of sparse in that 900-1,200 seat range where you can do off-season stuff that is still economically feasible. Herbst is booked all year round and it’s not ideal acoustically for opera. David has explored a number of options to find a midsize venue where we could do more pieces in the chamber repertoire: 18th century works along with new pieces, some less traditional, and experimental pieces. We would feature the Adler fellows in those productions.

We’ve done a lot of collaborations with Zellerbach. Bob Cole has been a good partner with us, and we may continue to do concerts with them. We had a great success with The Little Prince, which was a co-production. We hope to find more pieces like that.

Post: Can you describe some of the process in developing new operas? How involved was SF Opera in Philip Glass’ Appomattox, for example?

Cranna: It’s rare for us to take a piece that comes fully formed, especially for someone like David, because what’s the thrill in that? If you have a creative impulse, you want to be part of the creative process. Appomattox was shaped over a period of quite some time and David’s involvement was thorough. Even when we got into the actual rehearsals David encouraged a little more character development for some of the minor characters. He felt that we needed to hear more personal comments, and both Chris Hampton, the librettist, and Glass responded to that. It wasn’t much—just a line or two or three that told us a little more about what was going on in the emotional life of the characters.

Post: I don’t think of Appomattox as having a strong storyline.

Cranna: I would contrast Appomattox with some of Philip’s previous work in which there was even less narrative, such as Satyagraha, which was ceremonial music going on while something else was being enacted. No, they weren’t content with an ordinary straightforward narration.

Post: And what about The Bonesetter’s Daughter?

Cranna: During the second orchestra run-through David asked for some short lines of dialogue to be inserted to bring into focus some simple but key things. It’s very brief: just a spoken line here or there with no change in the score. Stewart has done a lot of minor tweaking: a few shortcuts and a lot of taciting in some places the piece is overscored. He and the conductor are key in that. For example, the conductor will say, “this would be better staccato, it would be easier to keep this together rhythmically”—it will be minor things. Of course, you don’t really re-orchestrate Verdi. The question then is how strong should an accent be. Where the arc in a phrase should be or the shaping of a rubato. Changes are much more subtle when you’re dealing with works by the masters. You don’t want to tinker too much.

Post: What’s your favorite opera?

Cranna: Figaro. I have a top ten list that’s kind of eclectic, but if you really twist my arm, it’s Figaro.

—Jaime Robles

A version of this article first appeared in the Piedmont Post.